Home Video Heroes: Cartivision - The First Format To Offer Movies For Rent - Warped Factor - Words in the Key of Geek.

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Home Video Heroes: Cartivision - The First Format To Offer Movies For Rent

What shall we watch tonight, honey? Facial Care or The Lion in Winter?
During the home video boom of the 1980s, a visit to Blockbuster or your local home video rental store was a normal weekly activity for many familes. Everyone had some kind of home video system. Very likely a VHS recorder, although a few people might still be sticking with the Betamax format or even the double-sided madness of the Philips Video 2000 system. Heck, perhaps you were lucky enough to have one of those cutting edge Laserdisc players? Reserved solely for the serious movie conniseur.

But the VHS-era was not the start of home video rental. In fact it had been attempted decades earlier when cinema was in its infancy. Way back in 1906 various film-industry entrepreneurs began to discuss the potential of home viewing of films, and in 1912 both Edison and Pathé started selling film projectors for home use. Because making release prints was (and still is) very expensive, early home projector owners rented films by mail from the projector manufacturer. It wasn't exactly a viable business model, but that would change a little come 1924 when Kodak invented first 16-mm film, and then later developed 8-mm film. After that point, consumers could purchase a film projector for one of those film formats and rent or buy home-use prints of some cartoons, short comedies, and brief "highlights" reels edited from feature films.

The Super 8 film format, introduced in 1965, was marketed for making home movies, but it also boosted the popularity of show-at-home films. Eventually, longer, edited-down versions of feature films were issued, which increasingly came in color and with a magnetic soundtrack, but in comparison to modern technologies film projection was still quite expensive and difficult to use. As a result, home viewing of films remained the province of dedicated film buffs willing and able to invest thousands of dollars in projectors, screens, and film prints.

The first commercially practical videotape recording system was produced in 1956 by Ampex. But, the Ampex system was physically bulky, used reel-to-reel tape and wasn't suitable for the average home use. Sony tried to address this with their 1971 U-Matic system, which they soon discovered could not be made at a price point for the average consumer. However, the U-Matic format did find a market within the industrial and institutional sectors where it was very successful for such applications as business communication and educational television. As a result, Sony shifted U-Matic's marketing to the industrial, professional, and educational sectors. As they did so, Avco Corporation of Texas made one giant leap into the home consumer market with a 25" television set that incorporated its own Cartrivision videotape player.
Developed by Frank Stanton's Cartridge Television, Inc. (CTI), a subsidiary of Avco, who also owned Embassy Pictures at the time, the first model of Cartrivision-equipped TV set was released in 1972 and sold for US $1,350. It was also the first videocassette recorder to have pre-recorded tapes of popular movies available for rent, and just like those early projector manufacturers, these rental tapes came via mail-order as the video rental store was still a good few years away.

One of the most fascinating things about Cartrivision was that tapes were available in two different formats, coloured red and black. The red tapes had the unusual feature of only being playable once. An anti-piracy measure and an essential inclusion to convince Hollywood to licence films for the format, each movie could be rented on red tape for between $3 to $7 a time (of which about 200 titles were available; major movies such as The Bridge on the River Kwai, Guess Who's Coming to Dinner, Dr. Strangelove, High Noon, The Quiet Man, The Belles of St Trinian's, and The Jazz Singer) but it needed to be rewound by a Cartrivision dealer. The dealer would then update an official tally on the amount of views per tape, keeping those Hollywood auditors happy.
More expensive cassettes on sports, travel, art, and how-to topics were available for purchase. These cassettes were black, and could be rewound on a Cartrivision recorder. So if you fancied watching, say, the 1969 Superbowl over and over again in the comfort of your own home, or you needed some essential tips on facial care you could purchase your own Cartrivision tape with this pre-recorded on for between $13 to $40.

So, it all sounds good, right? Trouble was $1,350 equates to about $7,870 in 2021 when adjusted for inflation. And that was for the entry level system, the model above sold for $1,600. Your average Sears customer did not have that kind of money to spend. Sales were extremely low, even with the prospect of an optional monochrome video camera to make your own home movies in the format, CTI could not make any ground with Cartrivision. Not long after launch, the company was hit with several financial difficulties, including the need to dispose of an entire warehouse of defective tapes. RCA also contributed to the demise of Cartrivision by making press announcements stating their superior SelectaVision MagTape system would soon be on the market. The general public held-out for the potentially cheaper option, with Avco abandoning Cartrivision in July 1973 before their standalone recorder (as featured in the press clipping above) was released, and taking a $1 million write-off on the whole project.

But, for it's baby steps into the world of home video rental, Cartrivision deserves its place in the history books and its own page within our Home Video Heroes collection.

Did you ever own a Cartivision video-tape system? Let us know in the comments below.

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